Saturday, May 26, 2018

The Week Ending Saturday, May 26th, 2018


Yesterday afternoon I ran a few more errands. I got some of our laundry detergent, some dishwasher soap packets, etc. I also took the truck to the Chevrolet dealership on Jackson Road to see if they had time to change out some headlights. But they did not. So I have an appointment for tomorrow morning.

We have a confusing situation with our insurance. Apparently they are paying us rather than paying the contractors. This is not how they did it last time. I have to try to figure this out with Grace. I’m not sure they have taken into account the money we already spent on the recent damages and put those expenditures towards our deductibles for the two claims. So we might wind up having to pay more than expected, if we can’t get this straightened out quickly, and it looks like we might have to do more by way of managing contractors than we were expecting. Which might mean a lot of trips to Saginaw… and the truck really is not in great shape. More to put on the credit cards. I keep telling myself that we just have to get through this bottleneck, and then our monthly expenses will be dramatically lower, and we’ll be able to dig ourselves out of the hole.

Last night was frustrating—we were going to watch Arrival, but after dinner the kids blew off all their chores, and went ouside and played for an hour instead of clearing the table and cleaning up. So I cancelled the movie.

Then we were going to have a story, but Veronica threw a screaming tantrum over a torn-out page in our copy of D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths. The page was torn into pieces and crumpled up. I think Elanor probably got hold of the book. It’s pretty low-quality paper; newsprint-like. But Veronica insisted that I try to repair it with tape. The only tapes we have on hand are clear packing tape and blue gaffer tape. We don’t buy the kids scotch tape because they inevitably just unspool the whole roll. It’s one of our kids’ books; they get damaged. I don’t get as unhappy about it as I might get about, say, the destruction of a rare first edition. If it gets too bad we can get another copy.

But the meltdown was the last straw, so I just couldn’t continue. I sent them to bed, drank a glass of scotch, and went to sleep myself.

This morning: coffee, blueberry pancakes with a homemade black raspberry syrup, and a Costco quiche.

I spent a little time this afternoon trying to sort out some books and make sure my catalog is up-to-date. In particular I was trying to make sense of our recent Library of America books. I think a few of them might be lost somewhere in the basement. I am still really looking forward to some day soon when I can have all these books up on shelves and accessible.

Dinner will be pasta and meat sauce, some Costco taquitos, and salad.

Grace didn’t leave Connecticut until early this afternoon, so she will be staying overnight somewhere in Pennsylvania, and hopefully getting back to Saginaw in time to return the car as planned, then coming back down here, maybe early in the evening.


It’s a lot of work to cook and clean up 3 meals a day for nine people!

Last night we did in fact manage to watch Arrival. I’m not sure the kids got all that much out of it, other than the cool aliens. Benjamin was bored and liked to disrupt things.

After the movie Veronica went off to bed early, but I read the kids A Wrinkle in Time chapter 3, which leads up to the moment that the children meet Mrs. Which. I was reminded all over again how clever and humane L’Engle’s portrayal of the “witches” is, and how badly DuVernay and company tortured L’Engle’s ideas. It’s maddening all over again.

I was up early this morning so I could get on the road before 8:00, to try to make sure I got the truck to the dealership in time for my 9:00 appointment. Fortunately traffic was not that bad on I-94, so I managed to get there by 9:15 or so. But of course that meant an extra hour of waiting. It still took almost two hours to get the oil changed, tires rotated, and two headlight bulbs replaced. To try to make things easier for Grace when she gets back tonight, I picked up a few more food items at Costco that are either ready-to-eat meals or nearly so: a chicken pot pie, a container of cooked ribs, a container of macaroni and cheese, some more sausages, etc. The kids are having macaroni and cheese for lunch and continuing their Harry Potter movie marathon; they’ve now reached the two-part Deathly Hallows movies.


The kids continued their Harry Potter marathon but got stalled out before finishing Deathly Hallows part 1 because the younger kids were demanding Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2. I struggled to stay focused and get the rest of my day’s work hours in. I’m working in LabVIEW. For some reason my work laptop stalls when starting up, sitting at a plain blue screen for perhaps ten minutes before finishing the boot-up process. This seems to be because LabVIEW code, starting up, waits a long time to try to contact services on the network, before giving up.

Google tells me that this is a thing. I have not tested this fix yet.

I’m not the only one to have a critique of LabVIEW.

Grace made it back to Ypsilanti! She still needs to get the rental car up to Saginaw and get back here, so I will drive her, leaving here at 8:30, and getting back… well, probably about midnight.


It was almost 1:00 when we got home. We left Ypsilanti a bit before 8:00. We had to drive to Saginaw, drop off Uncle Jim, then put some gas in the rental car, then drive to the old house on Adams, pick up my car, then drive to the rental place, drop off the rental car, then put gas in my car, then drive home. Nothing terribly interesting, just time consuming when you add in the stops for gas and bathroom breaks and time spent getting bags in and out of cars and searching the rental car to make sure nothing was left in it. The rental car was, I think, a 2017 Honda Odyssey. It was so very strange, compared to the Odysseys of years past. The key is a strange, large chunk of plastic that you insert and twist in a keyhole on the dashboard, not the steering column. There were so many gratuitous changes to little things, like heater controls. Everything was motorized, including the rear door latch. I’m really not a fan of all these extraneous motors. There’s just so much to break, and no doubt the repairs are very expensive and require a dealership.

On the drive, our housemate called to report that the kids were trying to murder each other. And when we got home, we found that they had done none of the little cleanup tasks. Food was sitting out, they had opened up multiple containers of coconut milk (there were four containers open). The TV and Blu-ray player were on, with the Blu-ray player playing the attractor loop over and over, and Daniel was asleep on the floor of the family room.

One child has bruises on his face and we are trying to figure out what kind of consequences the kids would benefit from. There was an adult at home, but she was upstairs and did not see the fight, just heard it. They were watching movies and it seemed reasonably safe to leave them semi-supervised for about 4 hours. I guess it was “reasonably safe” in that no one was killed or needed to go to a hospital emergency room. But Grace and I are appalled at our own children. Do they really need an adult in the room with them at all times?

I got up and out a bit late, but it wasn’t that bad. It’s cool and overcast again. I took a couple of leftover hard-boiled eggs and some buttered bread for breakfast, and drank a small coffee in the car, and brought a breakfast burrito for lunch. So—lots of eggs. Which means lots of gas. Sorry, co-workers.

I don’t have any particular reading or viewing to report, from the last couple of days.


Yesterday afternoon I spent working mostly with LabVIEW code again. It’s coming back to me and I’m remembering more from my training. I still find the visual presentation frustrating. As I’m looking at a screen full of LabVIEW “code,” I find myself mentally translating it into a language that, in my head, looks something like Haskell; it has something resembling the Maybe monad, for error-handling, and something resembling case statements. I’m still frustrated with the way that it does not really seem to raise the level of abstraction, and in several ways it makes the logic opaque. For example, the options of a case structure are hidden until you click through them. You can’t see the options as part of the program text.

There are some things I appreciate: for example, I appreciate the way that a case structure has input and output “tunnels” and if you leave an output tunnel unconnected, in one of the “branches,” LabVIEW won’t let you get away with that. (But this also means, I think, that if you want to modify a variable (feed something into a “wire”), in one of the “branches” of the case, the variable has to “tunnel” out of all the “branches.” In a text-based language, it seems to me, the logic of which code modifies which variables is at least as apparent, if not more so.

Refactoring code is, it seems to me, far more tedious; it’s like having to modify an embroidery project. You have to unpick a lot of threads. Some refactorings are easy, such as creating a function out of some existing code. In LabVIEW the equivalent is to create a “sub-VI.” But this winds up burying functionality in a different source file; in a very “factored” case, you can wind up with one file per “function.” Following the logic between nested VIs requires having two windows open for each one. If you are single-stepping through this, it gets pretty crazy. All the GUI for all this is hugely resource intensive and gets slow.

Traditional code in a text file is essentially one-dimensional, but one can apply a sort of partial second dimension using indentation to illustrate structure. Inserting functions in a module or rearranging the code within a function involves text-editing operations. When function calls are “nested,” they don’t have to be further indented, and don’t have to involve code in a different source file, although they can. The one-dimensional nature of the source text means that inserting or removing code just pulls up or pushes down the rest of the code at the insertion point; aside from adjusting indentation, that “partial” second dimension, there’s no other “rearranging” one has to do in order to fit code into an existing function. In LabVIEW you have to make room for it.

The development environment will help with this, expanding a case structure or scrolling for you, but once the “code” of a “function” exceeds your screen size, you’re starting to get into trouble. That point—where the code exceeds your screen size—is essentially arbitrary and tied to your hardware (that is, how many monitors you have, and how big they are).

Wiring can get crazy. LabVIEW style guides always warn against routing wires behind things. But it keeps happening; when I draw wires, LabVIEW often seems to route them behind my cases and comments. And apparently if you are studying to get LabVIEW certifications, your code can also get dinged for “excessive bends” in your wires—that is, routing around things.

And speaking of comments, in a one-dimensional code “world,” with indentation, it ought to be relatively easy to figure out what code a comment applies to. In the two-dimensional LabVIEW world? Not so much. What’s the convention? And if you do heavily comment your code—well, the comments get in the way of the wires, and since the wires aren’t supposed to route behind things—bam, you’ve got wires looping all over the screen in their effort to route around the comments. Ugh.

One thing that might be interesting: an option to hide all the wires. But this unfortunately also hides any information about sequencing.

Did I mention that outside of the requirements of the wiring, the sequencing often feels arbitrary? (And so when single-stepping the code, the actual order of operation can hop around the screen, as long as it follows the relative ordering imposed by the wiring—kind of like in functional programming languages such as Haskell).

Really, the more I get into it, the more I can see how it has advantages for simple programs and for programmers who are not highly experienced, but as I’m not that, I keep feeling the urge to write in something more functional and even more strongly- and explicitly-typed. A lot of my LabVIEW coding time feels productive because I’m dragging things around on the screen; “look, I’m busy!” But it’s hard to imagine that in terms of actually completing functionality, I wouldn’t be faster in just about anything, even a language I don’t particularly love, like Python.

I keep wanting to just paste in some “code” in my LabVIEW VIs. Honestly I don’t think it would be that hard to add a textual representation that still obeyed all of LabVIEW’s typing and constraints.

In fact, since at the low level computers essentially execute a tape—a one-dimensional “text”—there is such a representation; whether an annotated graph, or a text, there is a representation of your LabVIEW code that, because it is a proprietary program, you aren’t allowed to see; this representation becomes the executable.

And something deep within me finds that, idea, that I’m not allowed to see under the hood, to tinker, or work on a program in that representation, fundamentally and deeply offensive.

Tuesday Evening

Dinner was ribs, brown rice, and cooked cabbage. I was tired and wanted to get to bed early, but when two of the kids came in to say goodnight and blithely wanted a hug and a kiss, Grace and I had to have some words with them about their behavior over the last five days and how angry and frustrated we were with them. And, therefore, how demented it seemed to us that they would walk in as if nothing had happened, and we didn’t have any issues to work out. When the previous night these two siblings had been in a screaming fistfight with each other while I was driving the round trip to Saginaw.

We didn’t really finish that conversation because Grace and I are honestly kind of out of ideas with these two. One thing we have tried to convey how much their younger siblings follow their example. And so they are, in a way, undoing, or working against, the habits of diligence and discipline we are trying to inculcate in their siblings.

And, how that makes us even more angry.

We didn’t sleep all that well; Grace has my heartburn. We had a phone call with our realtor. Things are still more or less on track to sell the house, closing in perhaps two or three weeks. We just have to hold out.

Breakfast was an almond milk latte and vegan muffin.

I ordered a couple of copies of The Benedict Option so Grace and I can read it and discuss it on the podcast.

At lunchtime I ran out to Meijer to buy some lunch food and to deposit a check from Liberty Mutual. Grace called me with some confusing and startling news: apparently the reason the bat damage claim has been held up in processing is that the estimate for repair work came in at over forty thousand dollars.

Our understanding is that the remediation proposed involves repair to an attic ventilation panel, replacing insulation, and cleaning the ducts which might be contaminated with bat guano. But it’s hard to believe that his work could sensibly cost as much as, say, a completely new roof.

So, we’re working through our options here. The process of trying to get these repairs done has been endless and extremely confusing.


Last night: a pasta salad made with Costco rotisserie chicken pieces, olives, carrots, and homemade mayo. Pretty good!

We are getting a second estimate on the bat damage repairs.

This morning at the Harvest Moon Cafe I told the manager, on the way out the door: “I’m a 50 year old man with seven children. Please tell my waitress that I really don’t like being called ‘honey,’ ‘sweetie,’ or other terms like that, and find it very disrespectful.”

This is the first time I’ve ever spoken to anyone about restaurant servers speaking to me like this. I’ve often seen people do it to Grace, but I have tended to assume it was part of the infantilization of black women that white people do. But I’m pretty clearly a white male. I’m not sure what exactly offended me this morning, except that it was so constant and so over-the-top silly. Maybe it had something to do with a woman half my age speaking to me as I might speak to an eight-year-old. But now that I think about it, I don’t even speak to children like that. I guess maybe I’ve just reached the “get off my lawn!” stage of my life.

We didn’t have a story last night, but Grace and I actually managed to get to bed a little early and so didn’t sleep too badly, although Elanor was wakeful (she had gotten a nap before dinner).

At work this morning I found that my computer had blue-screened and rebooted yet again overnight, just sitting there. I made another image backup.


“A Knife in the Dark”

We finally managed to have a decent story last night. I read the kids the second half of chapter 11 from Fellowship, called “A Knife in the Dark.” This is the penultimate chapter in “Book One,” the first half of Fellowship. I’ve had to explain to the kids several times: The Lord of the Rings is one big novel, broken into six “books” or sections, and these were originally published in three physical volumes. This leads people to believe that it is a “trilogy,” and it really isn’t; it isn’t three novels. Between “books,” the story doesn’t conclude; in fact, Book One ends in a cliffhanger situation, and the first volume, The Fellowship of the Ring, certainly does not conclude the story in its final chapter, “The Breaking of the Fellowship.”

“A Knife in the Dark” is a good example of how Tolkien achieves drama in these chapters, really, in spite of, and not because of, his main storytelling impulses, which seem to be digression and world-building. In the book, Aragorn doesn’t seem to be all that good at his job; he confesses to several mistakes. If he had been really good at it, maybe the hobbits would have avoided the Black Riders altogether! Although that would not allow for the dramatic confrontation. Maybe instead we’d be reading about another hobbit meal at the “Forsaken Inn” that Aragorn briefly mentions; we don’t know a lot about that Inn, except that in some drafts of The Hobbit Tolkien described a “Last Inn,” a deserted building east of Bree, which might be the same place.

In the movie, the hobbits Merry and Pippin foolishly light a fire on the peak of Weathertop, a hill holding the ruins of a watch-tower, which attracts the attention of the Black Riders, and Frodo yells at them to put it out. The peak is visible for miles around. The Black Riders converge on Weathertop and there is a dramatic fight; Frodo feels overwhelming pressure to put on the ring, and does so. The rest proceeds pretty much how the book describes it, although perhaps not quite as violently and dramatically.

In the book, the traveling party explores Weathertop and finds evidence that Gandalf may have been there three days earlier, but they don’t camp there; they camp in a “dell,” a more secluded spot. They see the Black Riders converging on their position, and so they have plenty of warning that they will be arriving soon. They build a fire, and then Aragorn prepares them for the fight by building up the fire into a huge bonfire, sharpening everyone’s swords, giving the hobbits a brief tutorial on which end of a sword to hold, and establishing a perimeter of barriers to snare and trip the riders.

I’m kidding, of course. Aragorn actually does none of those things, deciding that it is better to prepare for the inevitable attack by… reciting several pages of verse, specifically, verses that tell part of the story Beren and Lúthien.

I’m gonna have to come right out and say it. These verses have some beautiful wording in it, but it is dull as dishwater compared to the more exciting parts of the story, and they don’t really scan or sing all that well. So many verbs, describing so little action: music wells and quavers, hemlock-sheaves lie, beech leaves fall, the woodland wavers, the heavens shiver, her mantle glints, a mist quivers, a lark rises, rain falls, water bubbles, starlight trembles and shimmers, hair and arms glimmer… and the rhymes—oy. This is impressive world-building, but as poetry? Meh. I struggled to sing it in a way that would make it lively, but Merry and Pippin (my children Merry and Pippin, not the hobbits in the story) actually fell asleep. (Merry and Pippin in the story might have fallen asleep too).

Having sedated the hobbits with poetry, Aragorn doesn’t stop there; he continues to tell the hobbits about how that story ties into other ancient tales (some of which were later published in The Silmarillion):

Tinuviel rescued Beren from the dungeons of Sauron, and together they passed through great dangers, and cast down even the Great Enemy from his throne, and took from his iron crown one of the three Silmarils, brightest of all jewels, to be the bride-price of Luthien to Thingol her father. Yet at the last Beren was slain by the Wolf that came from the gates of Angband, and he died in the arms of Tinuviel. But she chose mortality, and to die from the world, so that she might follow him; and it is sung that they met again beyond the Sundering Seas, and after a brief time walking alive once more in the green woods, together they passed, long ago, beyond the confines of this world.

A Matter of Breeding

Aragorn is fascinated with this story, of course, because it is echoed, in that very Tolkienesque way that stories are reiterated across the ages, going from history to legend to myth, in his own relationship with Arwen. Aragorn is descended from Beren and Lúthien, through Dior, Elwing, and Elros (Elrond’s brother), and then through several generations of the Kings of Númenor. Arwen is also descended from Elwing, her grandmother, through Elrond. She is much closer to Beren and Lúthien in terms of generations, because Elves have much longer generations.

My kids asked “wait—doesn’t that make Aragorn related to Arwen?” And my answer was “yes, yes it does.” They are first cousins “62 or 67 times removed”, which probably makes them not much more closely related, if more closely related at all, than pretty much any two random people on earth currently living. Certainly they are not closely related enough, genetically, to worry about inbreeding, as Aragorn’s descendants have spent tens of generations “outbreeding.”

Beren and Lúthien

The story of Beren and Lúthien has been published in the recent standalone volume Beren and Lúthien. To create the text for that that volume Christopher Tolkien sorted through various drafts and versions, some previously published in The Book of Lost Tales, The Lays of Beleriand and The Silmarillion, to make a longer-form, continuous, standalone story. Wikipedia says:

Published in 2017, it is painstakingly restored from Tolkien’s manuscripts and presented for the first time as a continuous and standalone story. The intent of the book is to extract a single narrative out of the ever-evolving materials that make up “The Tale of Beren and Lúthien”. It does not contain every version or edit to the story, but those Christopher Tolkien believed would offer the most clarity and minimal explanation.

The story as told in that book lacks internal consistency; for example, Beren is sometimes a Gnome (an early version of Tolkien’s elves), and sometimes a human. Christopher Tolkien believed, it seems, that trying to combine all the interesting story elements in one story and make them consistent would have required too much revision to Tolkien’s actual texts. I think he was probably correct about that; it is a good thing that he “showed his work” and one can actually go and read the draft materials he worked from in the published History of Middle Earth. It is a shame that Tolkien did not get a chance, or have the inclination, to write a unified version of the story himself.

Riders Attack!

Anyway, all this storytelling takes place in the lead-up to the actual attack of the Black Riders. When it arrives, the party can barely see them, as they are wearing black robes against a black background:

Over the lip of the little dell, on the side away from the hill, they felt, rather than saw, a shadow rise, one shadow or more than one. They strained their eyes, and the shadows seemed to grow. Soon there could be no doubt: three or four tall black figures were standing there on the slope, looking down on them. So black were they that they seemed like black holes in the deep shade behind them.

The hobbits are too filled with terror to do much of anything. Frodo can see them, though, after he puts on the ring:

He was able to see beneath their black wrappings. There were five tall figures: two standing on the lip of the dell, three advancing. In their white faces burned keen and merciless eyes; under their mantles were long grey robes; upon their grey hairs were helms of silver; in their haggard hands were swords of steel.

Not much of an actual fight is described at all. Frodo “struck at the feet of his enemy,” but apparently to no effect worth mentioning. Strider brandishes flaming pieces of wood, but Frodo apparently blacks out before he sees anything resembling the fight scene in the movie:

At that moment Frodo threw himself forward on the ground, and he heard himself crying aloud: O Elbereth! Gilthoniel! At the same time he struck at the feet of his enemy. A shrill cry rang out in the night; and he felt a pain like a dart of poisoned ice pierce his left shoulder. Even as he swooned he caught, as through a swirling mist, a glimpse of Strider leaping out of the darkness with a flaming brand of wood in either hand.

This scene is very exciting in the movie, but it’s been rearranged considerably. I don’t really mind. I recall that in Ralph Bakshi’s animated film, this scene is much closer to the book—but, mind you, I’m not going to actually recommend that you watch Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings. Although it might be time to watch it again, and show it to the kids.

My work computer rebooted again overnight, logging a blue-screen error. Tonight after work I’ll hit up Costco, and we’ll have a long weekend!


Last night I read the first half of chapter 12 of Fellowship, called “Flight to the Ford.” Stuff is happening! Frodo’s been stabbed by a Morgul blade! The party is rushing towards Rivendell!

We find out that Frodo did not do any damage to the Black Rider that stabbed him:

‘Look!’ he cried; and stooping he lifted from the ground a black cloak that had lain there hidden by the darkness. A foot above the lower hem there was a slash. ‘This was the stroke of Frodo’s sword,’ he said. ’The only hurt that it did to his enemy, I fear; for it is unharmed, but all blades perish that pierce that dreadful King.

It’s not all that clear what happened after Frodo passed out. We think the party succeeded in driving away the Black Riders; they left without a fight because they believed that Frodo would soon be under their command. But how was this robe left behind? Did the Witch-king of Angmar really leave the scene without his cloak? Does he wear a cloak over his robe. Do… do the undead ringwraiths get cold when they’re out hunting hobbits? I have so many questions.

We also get an important detail about the blade that wounded Frodo:

There was a cold gleam in it. As Strider raised it they saw that near the end its edge was notched and the point was broken off.

The blade was designed to break off in the wound. We don’t learn for sure yet that there is a piece of the knife embedded in Frodo’s shoulder, but later Aragorn suggests it:

‘What is the matter with my master?’ asked Sam in a low voice, looking appealingly at Strider. ‘His wound was small, and it is already closed. There’s nothing to be seen but a cold white mark on his shoulder.’

‘Frodo has been touched by the weapons of the Enemy,’ said Strider, ’and there is some poison or evil at work that is beyond my skill to drive out. But do not give up hope, Sam!

There’s an interesting little bit I had forgotten about. When scouting the Last Bridge, Aragorn finds a token:

‘I can see no sign of the enemy,’ he said, ‘and I wonder very much what that means. But I have found something very strange.’

He held out his hand, and showed a single pale-green jewel. ‘I found it in the mud in the middle of the Bridge,’ he said. ‘It is a beryl, an elf-stone. Whether it was set there, or let fall by chance, I cannot say; but it brings hope to me. I will take it as a sign that we may pass the Bridge; but beyond that I dare not keep to the Road, without some clearer token.’

I think we will find that the beryl was dropped by Glorfindel; we’re going to meet him soon. He’s not even in the movie; Arwen’s role was expanded. I will write a bit more about that subject when we get there.

Frodo’s illness is a bit confusing, both to his companions and to the reader.

Frodo dozed, though the pain of his wound was slowly growing, and a deadly chill was spreading from his shoulder to his arm and side. His friends watched over him, warming him, and bathing his wound.

It seems that he is not able to walk, and so they put him on the pony, which slows everyone down because they have to carry all the provisions and luggage that the pony was carrying. And he gets gradually worse; later,

The cold and wet had made his wound more painful than ever, and the ache and sense of deadly chill took away all sleep.

But in the book, he doesn’t seem nearly as close to death as he appears in the movie; he doesn’t seem like he’s dying of tuberculosis. When it is necessary he actually can go on foot, at least for a while:

They decided to attempt the climb, but it proved very difficult. Before long Frodo was obliged to dismount and struggle along on foot.

In some ways, Frodo’s sickness seems to be almost more a spiritual malaise than a physical illness. Again Tolkien mentions Frodo’s dreams, or near-dreams, perhaps foreshadowing later events:

Frodo lay half in a dream, imagining that endless dark wings were sweeping by above him, and that on the wings rode pursuers that sought him in all the hollows of the hills.

He can even laugh and banter with his companions at times. When the party discovers the stone trolls, and Aragorn breaks a stick one one of them,

There was a gasp of astonishment from the hobbits, and then even Frodo laughed. ‘Well!’ he said. ‘We are forgetting our family history! These must be the very three that were caught by Gandalf, quarrelling over the right way to cook thirteen dwarves and one hobbit.’

Sam then lightens the mood considerably by singing a song of his own invention. This one was far more fun to sing out loud to the kids, and it’s one of my favorite pieces of verse from The Lord of the Rings, almost as good as Frodo’s song about the Man in the Moon. I think tonight we will finish chapter 12, which means we will be done with Book One; maybe not in terms of pages, but in terms of storytelling landmarks, we will be halfway through Fellowship and one-sixth of the way through the whole novel.

Dinner last night was salmon from Costco, leftover pasta salad, and a big berry pie from Costco. We drank a bottle of wine: 2017 Daisy brand Pinot Grigio blend from the Bieler Family winery in Washington State. This was a ten dollar bottle, and I was pleasantly surprised how good it was. A very light, very balanced blend, just the thing for the weekend when we pretty much kick off summer, although technically it does not start for a few more weeks.

Books, Music, Movies, and TV Mentioned This Week

  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
  • The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien
  • Ghosts by Paul Auster (in the trade paperback New York Trilogy Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, with an introduction by Luc Sante and illustrations by Art Spiegelman)
  • Beren and Lúthien by J. R. R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien
  • Arrival (2016 film)

Ypsilanti, Michigan
The Week Ending Saturday, May 26th, 2018

Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Week Ending Saturday, May 19th, 2018


We had a busy Mother’s Day, but managed to record a podcast. We didn’t have a guest, but wound up talking mostly about some books, movies, and TV shows that we’ve been watching. We are still actively working on scheduling guests for future shows.

We had a chicken pot pie for dinner and then I finished editing the podcast.

We had a long story last night: first Joshua and I read the first five chapters of a new book I bought him on Saturday, The Wild Robot Escapes by Peter Brown. We enjoyed the first one, The Wild Robot, so we’ve been waiting for the sequel to arrive.

Fellowship of the Ring

Next, I read chapter 10 of The Fellowship of the Ring, called “Strider.” This one of course features Aragorn, also known as Strider. I was struck by his mild and conciliatory manner in print, compared to the way he’s made a little more menacing in the film.

There are a few odd details. Aragorn is apparently the person that climbed over the gate into Bree when the watchman’s back was turned; as the text describes it, we think that it might be a Black Rider. In this chapter, Aragorn does not yet describe the Black Riders very convincingly. There’s an odd detail that is never mentioned in the movie: Merry is apparently rendered unconscious by the “black breath.” This is probably not present in the movie because it just would have been too prone to ridicule (the halitosis of Sauron! Aiiieeeeee!!!)

We still haven’t seen the Black Riders do much that is truly menacing. Gandalf’s letter is revealed, and it contains his a silly number of postscripts. And there is the head-scratching detail about Aragorn’s sword: apparently the sword he actually carries around, in his scabbard, is Narsil, a sword that dates back to the First Age. This seems slightly ridiculous—it’s a broken stump. Is this really the weapon that Aragorn uses to defend himself and defend the borders of the Shire?

It makes a bit more sense when we learn that the sword, in Tolkien’s original back-story, is in two pieces, not a number of pieces. In the movie, it was shattered, and the shards are on display in Rivendell. But still, it seems like Narsil, thousands of years old and broken in two pieces, would not be part of Aragorn’s “everday carry” in fighting orcs, Black Riders, etc.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

After finishing “Strider” and sending the kids to bed, I read Grace the final chapter of We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The ending of the story is quite satisfying. As I mentioned in this week’s podcast, if you read a description of the end of the novel after reading only the first chapter, it would seem unbelievable and unconvincing. But Jackson does such a beautiful job of setting everything up that when we get to the end, it seems like the only possible conclusion. I highly recommend this novel and I’ve really got to read more Shirley Jackson!


Back at work. It rained until early afternoon. Tonight I’ll go to Costco for groceries. I also need gas. And I’ve got a variety of small errands and phone calls to make. Last night’s sleep was bad: Elanor was restive. So I’m tired today.


What I bought at Costco: a berry pie; a chicken pot pie; sliced turkey; sliced ham; a box of sliced Italian meats (capocollo, prosciutto, and salame); ground turkey; sliced provolone; lamb chops; three dozen eggs; sliced cheddar; two boxes of Costco granola; a jar of Michigan honey; two bags of kale salad; two boxes of blackberries; a bag of rice ramen noodles; a bag of torta sandwich rolls; a bag of Costco whole grain bread; a bag of Dave’s Killer bread; a 3-pack of Flonase; a green t-shirt; a pair of shorts.

The Flonase is pricey: $49.99 for that 3-pack. But it’s been helping me out a lot, and I’m starting Sam on it, too. The t-shirt is a G. H. Bass t-shirt and I have a couple of these; they are suitable for wearing to work, and cost only $9.99. I have a couple more that I bought a year ago, and they hold up reasonably well to washing. The shorts are also G. H. Bass, cargo shorts, pretty nicely-made for $16.99.

The cart-load cost $282.37. Without the clothes and Flonase it would have been more like $200.00. It’s a measure of how stressed our finances are, in general, that this seems like too much to be spending to help feed 12 people for a week (although most of them are children and don’t eat all that much). Grace and I are really starting to get worn down by stress. We are hoping, hoping, hoping that the house sale will close soon and we can start—even just start—to feel a little less grinding stress about our money each month.


Dinner was sandwiches, made with the torta rolls, toasted and buttered, and some of our homemade garlic mayo, and the ham and Italian meats. Grace made a smoothie out of some expiring strawberries and bananas. We had salad with it, and then had the pie for dessert.

After dinner Grace took the cheddar and turkey to our friend. I was going to try reading the kids a story, but Veronica went with Grace and baby Elanor was noisy. So the story didn’t happen. Grace got back close to midnight.

Grace is firming up her plans for the weekend. She will drive to Connecticut to attend a family member’s funeral. On Wednesday she will drive to Saginaw to pick up a rental minivan. So she will be gone Thursday through Monday. I have a tentative plan to work from home Thursday, Friday, and Monday. I’m hoping for good weather so that the kids will play outside.


Elanor slept better last night. We got the windows open and the fan on and it wasn’t too uncomfortable. Today will be cooler.

The kids stole my hairbrush again.

The bathtub drain is almost completely clogged. I’ve been putting an enzyme cleaner down the drain for a couple of days, but I don’t think it is really helping, since this is pretty clearly a hair clog. I used the plunger on it this morning. The plunger is not very effective, because there’s an overflow drain, and I’m this means I’m pushing or pulling air through the overflow drain. But the plunging will move things a little. I managed to get a few handfuls of hair out.

I would be able to snake it, but this drain has a permanently attached stopper. I can’t even fit one of those thin, flat plastic snakes around the stopper. It works if I use the extreme clog remover (basically, straight sodium hydroxide, aka lye). I’m not really happy having to use these things a lot, because of our pipes, and because we have a septic tank.

We had a screen to catch hair and keep it from going down the drain, but the kids tore it up. I guess I need to get yet another one.

Breakfast was Costco granola and coconut milk (at home), and cold brew and yogurt (at work).

Webmail is down again. For the fourth time in two weeks.

On the plus side, it does seem that with regular intake of sauerkraut, yogurt, and antacids, and some occasional peace and quiet, my reflux is improving a bit. I don’t think it will really go away completely until we get the money situation moving in the right direction again.


Lasts night Grace roasted the lamb chops and wilted a bag of spinach and we had a delicious dinner.

Because she is about to leave town, we needed to record this coming Sunday’s podcast episode last night. Gaza is on our mind, so we recorded a “hot take” episode. Gaza has been on our minds a lot, and weighing heavily on our feelings, so I’m very glad we got something out, even something rough. We are committed to doing our best to get a show out once a week, not necessarily only a good show. We are putting our faith in the idea that even if some individual shows are rough, going through the process of recording and producing them every week, and listening to ourselves, means they will improve.

I was not initially planning to produce and upload the episode last night, but because it was short, it didn’t take that long to process, and I realized that it might be very difficult to get quiet time to work on the episode with Grace away. So I went ahead and published it.


After finishing the podcast, I went upstairs and read half of chapter 11 of The Fellowship of the Ring. This is the chapter called “A Knife in the Dark.” In this re-read, I noticed some of Tolkien’s interesting systems of imagery. We return briefly to check in on Fatty Bolger, who is living in Frodo’s house at Crickhollow and trying to maintain the illusion that Frodo is still there:

Fatty Bolger opened the door cautiously and peered out. A feeling of fear had been growing on him all day, and he was unable to rest or go to bed: there was a brooding threat in the breathless night-air.

And then:

There came the soft sound of horses led with stealth along the lane. Outside the gate they stopped, and three black figures entered, like shades of night creeping across the ground. One went to the door, one to the corner of the house on either side; and there they stood, as still as the shadows of stones, while night went slowly on. The house and the quiet trees seemed to be waiting breathlessly.

The word “breathless” is significant here and fits in with the riders, with their “black breath,” Merry’s going out for a “sniff” or “breath” of air, and particularly in Merry’s dreams. First, in Bombadil’s house:

It was the sound of water that Merry heard falling into his quiet sleep: water streaming down gently, and then spreading, spreading irresistibly all round the house into a dark shoreless pool. It gurgled under the walls, and was rising slowly but surely. ‘I shall be drowned!’ he thought.

Then, when Merry was rendered unconscious by the “black breath,” Nob reported that

He seemed to be asleep. “I thought I had fallen into deep water,” he says to me, when I shook him.

Merry seems to be particularly susceptible to dreams, or visions, or possessions; recall that he “channeled” a long-dead warrior on the Barrow-downs, and “sniffed” or “breathed” the “black breath.” And when he returns to the Prancing Pony,

He shut the door hastily, and leaned against it. He was out of breath. They stared at him in alarm for a moment before he gasped: ‘I have seen them, Frodo! I have seen them! Black Riders!’

When the village raises the alarm, the held “breath” is let out to blow the horns, and Tolkien starts to refer to gales and winds:

All about Crickhollow there was the sound of horns blowing, and voices crying and feet running. But the Black Riders rode like a gale to the North-gate. Let the little people blow! Sauron would deal with them later.

Back in Bree,

Frodo soon went to sleep again; but his dreams were again troubled with the noise of wind and of galloping hoofs. The wind seemed to be curling round the house and shaking it; and far off he heard a horn blowing wildly.

There are more references to open windows, flapping curtains, and cold air.

Tolkien’s dated, racist language in referring to Bill Ferny’s companion from the South is unfortunate: he has “a sallow [that is, yellow] face with sly, slanting eyes” and in three places Tolkien calls him “squint-eyed,”, and in one place, “ill-favoured” (ugly), a term used later by Faramir to describe Gollum.

On their journey, as they approach Weathertop, the hobbits and Aragorn see flashes of light in the night. We will later learn, of course, that these flashes were caused by Gandalf’s engagement in a battle. Gandalf will later tell his story, in the chapter “The Council of Elrond.”

’I galloped to Weathertop like a gale, and I reached it before sundown on my second day from Bree—and they were there before me. They drew away from me, for they felt the coming of my anger and they dared not face it while the Sun was in the sky. But they closed round at night, and I was besieged on the hill-top, in the old ring of Amon Sûl. I was hard put to it indeed: such light and flame cannot have been seen on Weathertop since the war-beacons of old.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves! If you are following along in the text, keep an eye out for more “breath” imagery, and more ways in which the seemingly minor characters, Merry and Pippin, are connected to events by their dreams and visions.


At work I’m slowly but surely getting my head back into LabVIEW. One of the things I like about LabVIEW is the explicit typing; it is a more strongly-typed language than C. But… one of the things I don’t like about LabVIEW is the lack of explicit typing; it is a more weakly-typed language than C.

How can both those things be true? Well, “clusters” (the rough equivalent of “structures” in other languages) exist, and typing is enforced, but yet types can be hard to work with. I’m not an expert at it yet, so I’m sure that I’m still missing some tricks, but it is unfortunate that trying to enforce precise types seems to be considered “advanced.” It doesn’t seem to be very easy to apply a specific type to a cluster, and the programming environment will often let you get away with using types that are compatible—that is, clusters that have the same types of elements in the same order. In fact, it seems to be a little unclear how specific types are actually managed. You can’t, as far as I can tell, just pop open a property dialog and tell LabVIEW that a cluster should have an explicit, named type; and I don’t think there is a way to see some kind of list or registry of the type definitions used in a given VI, or across VIs.

In many cases types are just hooked up automatically when you wire things together, and that’s helpful. I like the way you can hook a cluster to an output of a “for” loop, and LabVIEW will automatically build an array of clusters. Arrays are safer than they are in a language like C; the “language” seems to be memory-managed, and tagged, and array objects contain within them their length, and so they can be iterated with complete safety. But it’s confusing when I try to reuse exact types from one VI in another.

Some things that ought to be easy remain pretty hard. For example, there are enumeration types, and they have an underlying representation (a numeric type). Let’s say you want to read an enumeration from a text file. There ought to be a reliable and rigorously error-checked way to turn a string into an enumeration. Enumeration types are precisely specified, so it ought to be easily possible to make the LabVIEW runtime look for exact matches between the string and the enumerations, and generate errors in an ambiguous situation. In the forums, I saw a suggestion to use the “Scan from String” function.

This works, if the strings you are parsing precisely match your enumerations. But they also pass “false positives.” For example, I have an enumeration type that is configured with the enumerations “RX,” “RX-1,” and “RXM.” If I feed the “Scan from String” function the string “RXZ” goes not generate an error, but is instead recognized as the enumeration “RX.”

Using the generic “Scan from String” function this way is confusing; it has many input terminals. We hook an “Enum Constant” object to the “default 1” input terminal, and when we do this, the “output 1” terminal changes its type from the default “double” to the type of the enumeration. The built-in documentation reads:

If you wire an enumerated type to default 1, the function finds substrings matching the string values in the enumerated type and returns the corresponding numeric value of the enumerated type.

This description is not very precise; if the function just attempted to match the first available substring, the string “RX-1” would always match the “RX” enumeration, which doesn’t happen. It seems like perhaps the implementation looks for matches, starting with the longest enumeration of the type.

In general, this function makes the same design mistake as scanf—it tries to be all things to all people.

If I wanted to write my own VI to convert a string precisely to an enumerations and throw out errors when a precise match is not found, I could do so; I’m sure I could search an array of strings for an exact match. If a match was found, I could coerce the index of the match into the enumerated type. But I was not, at least quickly, able to figure out how to turn my “Enum Constant” object into an array of strings to search. And if I created my own array to search, I’d be violating the DRY (“don’t repeat yourself”) principle; my array would have to be manually updated if some future maintenance programmer ever changed the enumeration. That future maintenance programmer might be me.

So, for now, I’m sticking with the imprecise “Scan from String,” but I’m not happy about it; this should be easier, and the built-in functions ought to, by default, help me do precise error-checking, rather than doing what amounts to a “grep,” when parsing my input files. And I hate that whenever I actually try to test my program’s error-handling, I find that it is, by default, much too forgiving precisely where I want it to be demanding. And I hate the way that LabVIEW tends to suck away my limited time when what I am trying to do ought to be straightforward and common.

Like all proprietary languages I’ve worked with, the ecosystem tends to be designed to feed an army of certified consultants and architects, which means that the incentives to simple, “candy-machine” interfaces are missing, and in fact the reverse is true; National Instruments, its training arms, and its armies of consultants all have a vested interest in complexity and hidden features.


DreamHost apologized, but webmail is not accessible today… again. This is the fifth day I’ve been unable to access my e-mail for at least part of the day in the last two weeks. We are trying to close on a home sale and manage some critical repairs. Grace and I are getting important updates from our seller’s agent and insurance company almost daily.

I’m scratching my head wondering if we have to figure out how to abandon DreamHost. I’ve been using their service for our (modest) web hosting and e-mail needs since Grace bought our domain, “,” sixteen years ago. As if I didn’t have enough infrastructure things to worry about.


I’m working from home today. This morning Grace left for Connecticut with Elanor, to return probably on Monday. We didn’t have a story for the kids last night but I did start reading the first of Paul Auster’s City of Glass, the first novel of the New York Trilogy, out loud to Grace.

I have a feeling Grace isn’t really going to click with this one. I’m wondering if I will. Years ago I used to read a lot of so-called postmodern novels. That’s a contested category, but contains some amazing books like Crash by J. G. Ballard, Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs, and Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. Some folks apparently include even novels like Nabokov’s Lolita in this category.

City of Glass does not seem as extreme or scattershot as something like Naked Lunch, but it is quite strange. I haven’t gotten very far yet—just two chapters in. But man, this is a weird book. I did some laughing out loud at the self-referentiality of it all. There’s the author, Paul Auster. There’s the narrative character, Daniel Quinn. The narrative character is a writer. He writes detective novels. Under a pseudonym. His novels’ narrative character is called Max Work. Then a man starts calling Quinn and demanding to speak to Paul Auster… and then things start to get strange.

Webmail is not accessible again. This is the sixth day in two weeks…


We heard that the house appraised out high enough for the sale to go forward. That’s great news! Something in me unclenched, just a little. It looks like the sale will now very likely go forward. It can’t come soon enough.

After work yesterday I packed the kids into the car and we ran some errands. We have a check from Liberty Mutual to reimburse us for money spent on repairs, as part of the damage claims. I can’t really understand the statement and estimate they sent; it’s very complicated. But I’m glad to get some money back. So we ran out to deposit that, and to get some drain cleaner, and then to get dinner out at Culver’s. I also made a stop at Nicola’s Books, because the copy of Mistaken Identity had come in. I also picked up a copy of The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, and a copy of The Martian (the novel), because that was the movie I was planning to show the kids when we got home. I couldn’t remember if we had a copy or not.

It turns out we now have three copies. (Oops). Does anyone want a spare copy of The Martian?

We watched the extended edition of The Martian. The older kids really enjoyed it, although I think it was too slow to keep Benjamin all that interested. The extended edition and theatrical edition are on the same disc; you select your choice. There was an edition of the Lord of the Rings movies on DVD that allowed you to select which movie to watch, and just inserted the additional scenes as it played. I assume this Blu-ray works that way, but I’m not sure about that.

The extended edition is only about ten minutes longer than the theatrical release. Some of the scenes are only slightly extended. We see a little more footage showing just how hard a time Watney has, dragging himself into the hab and performing surgery on himself to remove the broken antenna that has impaled him through his suit. There’s also a nice scene that shows Watney completing his co-workers’ science experiments, since their mission together was cut short. That’s a nice scene, but most of the additional minutes aren’t all that important or noticeable.

The Martian is a good movie, and I like it quite a bit, but it’s not quite a great movie. I think it could have reached “great” with a slightly grittier, dirtier, smaller approach to the spacecaft interiors (that is, more realistic all around), and slightly more of a focus on the beautiful and austere Martian scenery. Watney talks about going out daily just to look at Mars; why not structure the passage of time in the film around this idea?

In a couple of places the drama is “punched up” to the point of silliness, such as the crazy final “catch” scene, which piles skin-of-his-teeth rescue on top of more skin-of-his-teeth rescue. It wouldn’t have killed the drama, at this stage in the move, to have the carefully plotted trajectories of Watney’s final rescue actually work without the need for crazy heroics, because we’ve already seen crazy heroics by the engineers, and that, it seems to me, is really what the movie is about.

The movie lacks a strong character arc. Watney’s tenacity and sense of humor is apparent in the opening scenes, and it is unchanged in the last scene. The mission commander Melissa Lewis is a strong and compassionate leader and willing to risk her life for her crew in the opening scene, and also in the climax of the film. None of the crew really seem to have an arc in this regard. It is interesting how the whole crew agrees to make the same kind of personal sacrifice and take on the additional risk of the rescue mission, just as Lewis was in the opening scenes, but it didn’t seem like this was ever truly in doubt.

Some of the best scenes in the whole movie are the moments in which the script uses humor to, paradoxically, make emotionally fraught scenes more convincing. When Watney first communicates with the crew on the Ares IV, Martinez types

Dear Mark, apparently NASA’s letting us talk to you now, and I drew the short straw. Sorry we left you behind on Mars. But we just don’t like you. Also, it’s a lot roomier on the Hermes without you. We have to take turns doing your tasks. But, I mean, it’s only botany. It’s not real science. How’s Mars?

This “ball busting” dialogue seems to me both great and very convincing. In fact I’d like to have had more of this sort of thing: of Watney talking to the crew of the Ares IV, of Watney talking to himself. As far as I’m concerned the humor could have been even darker and that would have been just fine.

There was a real opportunity to show Watney’s convincing mental and emotional slide and whatever extreme measures he had to go to in order to remain sane. We see his physical decline, but the most extreme things we see him do, emotionally, is to throw a bit of a tantrum, or admit he is self-medicating with Vicodin. I’m thinking of one of my favorite films, The Quiet Earth, here. But Watney just seems a little too well-adjusted for his portrayal to achieve true greatness.

This was an adaptation, of course, and the book was good but somewhat tame, so maybe the screenwriters didn’t feel that they could punch up the story, emotionally, and instead punched up the high-risk action instead. Having seen the movie three times now, it feels like they stuck to the safer, less rewarding path.

I had a quick call with Grace before I went to sleep. She was still driving. She was going to push on through to make it to Hartford without stopping overnight. I heard this morning that she made it in about 1:30 a.m. and everyone is there safe.

I read just a bit of Mistaken Identity before bed, and a bit more of City of Glass. Mistaken Identity is dense but seems good. It probably wasn’t the best thing to try to read while sleepy, and I’m not sure I like the writing style yet; initially at least, it seems a bit disorganized. But this may be, or at least I hope it is, because the first chapter introduces the critical ideas in a rush, and then the next chapters unpack them. At least, I hope that’s how it is structured.

Haider touches on many topics, including the Combahee River Collective and the Clinton campaign, and at least initially his assessment of how the Clinton campaign made cynical use of identity politics is something I strongly agree with. But even in the opening chapter he goes beyond this critique, touching on the more radical civil rights figures such as Malcolm X, and brings up the liberal whitewashing of King’s actual agenda. I want to see where he goes with this, but Haider is also making important points about how all the identity-based agendas are not created equal; not every struggle is the moral equivalent of the struggle against racism.

City of Glass continues to be entertainingly weird!

Have I mentioned recently that I really like these editions?

Note to self: I want to get a copy of this edition of The Bloody Chamber.

I’ve also been continuing to read The Reactionary Mind by Corey Robin. This is dry by comparison to Mistaken Identity, and I’m not sure it is actually all that good, but I want to give it a fair chance.

I took a mid-day break and went to Costco to get groceries for the next few days, to try to avoid rush-hour traffic. Traffic wasn’t too bad. I got a big cheese pizza for dinner, and tortilla strips and a layered dip to have as a snack with tonight’s movie. I got some pre-made tortas and breakfast burritos, bacon, and pancake mix, and a coffee cake for breakfast tomorrow. We’ve got lots of food. Which is great, because I really don’t feel like cooking all that much when Grace isn’t around to cook with me.

The constant arguing and noise from the kids is kind of beating me up, as is the struggle to get the kids to do some chores, to help keep our house from descending into complete chaos.

There’s been another school shooting.


Dinner last night was pizza, chips, dip, and root beer… and leftover salad for those few of us that would eat it.

Last night we watched Thor, the Marvel movie from 2011. There are three Thor movies; the only one I’ve seen before was Thor: Ragnarok, which was mostly a fun, colorful party that didn’t take itself very seriously.

This first film has a few things going for it, and a few things that fall flat. The portrayal of Asgard is quite gorgeous. I thought that the rainbow Bifröst bridge in particular was wonderful. There are some terrific battle sequences. The giant, fire-breathing robot is a marvel to behold. Chris Hemsworth is certainly not bad as Thor; he’s just a little bland. The self-deprecating Thor in Ragnarok is a lot more fun and convicing.

The bad news is that the story really isn’t all that strong. Odin goes into some kind of coma, but it’s not clear why. Of course, he wakes up at the maximally critical moment. Loki’s motivations and character aren’t really well-unpacked. We meet Hemindall, the gatekeeper, played by Idris Elba. He seems like a character we’d like to get to know better, but he spends much of the movie frozen in a giant block of ice. There’s a love interest, Jane Foster, played by Natalie Portman, but while Portman does a reasonably good job, it just isn’t all that convincing a romance. Some of the minor characters are more fun to watch: Stellan Skarsgård as Erik Selvig is fun to watch, as is Colm Feore as Laufey (the king of the frost giants). Overall, I think the critical consensus is correct, and this movie has some fun battles and nice details, but it just doesn’t rise to greatness.

I’ll keep an eye out for a discounted copy of Thor: The Dark World. We’ll probably watch it, even though the reviews are even poorer than those for Thor. I hear Natalie Portman gets to go to Asgard, which sounds fun, but it sounds like it wasn’t enough to save the movie.

Breakfast this morning was a coffee cake, coffee, chicken sausage with apple and gouda cheese, and fried eggs. I fried up a dozen sausages but they were not popular, although I thought they were quite good. So we have six in the refrigerator. Pippin was horrified by the cheese oozing out of his sausage, calling it “animal blood,” and then he wouldn’t eat anything at all. So this is unfortunately typical for Pippin; eventually he’ll eat something.

Last night and early this morning, I finished reading City of Glass by Paul Auster. This is a satisfying short novel, but it definitely is a piece of “metafiction,” more about itself and the process of writing and the relationship of writers to their works. The story gets progressively stranger as nothing that hs been set up takes the obvious and expected path. In the end we actually get an authorial intrusion; the author, writing in the first person, tells us about how he heard this strange story and was given Quinn’s notebook by his friend, the character in the book named Paul Auster. But then… who is the author?

Overall it’s an intriguingly weird book, but it’s definitely not for everyone. If you’re expecting an actual straightforward detecting novel, rather than a sort of existential detective novel about the relationship between author, characters, and readers, you will likely be disappointed.

I will probably not read the rest of this one to Grace, because I’m not confident she would really enjoy the self-referentiality; it seems like a story written for writers, or at least English majors. I’m guessing she would probably describe the story as “crawling up it’s own butt.” We had a good time with We Have Always Lived in the Castle, though, so I’m thinking maybe I’ll read her The Haunting of Hill House next. And I will almost certainly read the next two books in Auster’s New York Trilogy; they are also quite short.

It’s rainy and overcast today so the kids are having a Harry Potter movie marathon.

I have one more movie of the four I bought a couple of weeks ago; the kids haven’t seen it yet, and don’t know about it. It’s Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival. We’ll see how they do with the Harry Potter marathon, how the weather goes, how our errands go, etc. Maybe we’ll watch Arrival tonight, or maybe not. It’s one of my favorite movies, and I’m sure at least a couple of the older kids will like it, although the younger ones may very well be bored.

Books, Music, Movies, and TV Mentioned This Week

  • The Wild Robot Escapes by Peter Brown
  • We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (finished)
  • The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien
  • City of Glass by Paul Auster (in the trade paperback New York Trilogy Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, with an introduction by Luc Sante and illustrations by Art Spiegelman)
  • The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, with an introduction by Laura Miller and cover art by Aron Weisenfeld)
  • Mistaken Identity by Asad Haider
  • The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump by Corey Robin (second edition; the first edition was subtitled Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin)
  • The Martian (2015 film) (Extended edition on Blu-ray)
  • Thor (2011 film)
  • Arrival (2016 film)

Ypsilanti, Michigan
The Week Ending Saturday, May 19th, 2018

Sunday, May 13, 2018

The Week Ending Saturday, May 12th, 2018


I wasn’t too perky on Sunday morning. I had one box of dehydrated hash browns from Costco left, so made that, and threw in some corned beef. There wasn’t very much, and one of our kids actually took a bunch and went into another room to eat it, so he wouldn’t have to share. I’ll leave him anonymous, but what an asshole!

Grace and I didn’t get any, but instead ate reheated nachos. I threw a fried egg on mine.

The afternoon was busy: Grace took Joshua to perform at a choir concert, which overlapped with our friends’ May crowning ceremony and potluck. So I took most of the kids out to Grass Lake. It’s always great to get out there, although it is quite a long drive.

Somewhat late on Saturday night Grace managed to get one of her Facebook friends, Angie, to join us for an interview. So we had an interesting conversation which became Conversation 41.

One strange note: I’m seeing myself “unfollowed” from Twitter accounts such as “Our Revolution.” I see someone share a tweet, and realize that I was following an account, but am no longer following the account, even though I didn’t do anything.

Many leftist Twitter accounts are reporting that this seems to be happening to them: their accounts are losing followers, apparently without the followers actually doing the unfollowing.

As of Sunday evening I’m following 293 accounts. I’m making a note of this just so I have some record if that number suddenly drops.



Before work today I finished Unspeakable by Chris Hedges with David Talbot. This is a short book, and so it may seem curious that it took me so long to finish it. It consists of a series of short chapters in which Hedges is interviewed by Talbot. My excuse for finishing it slowly is two-fold: first, I wanted to be able to give it my full attention, and not read it while tired or distracted. And second, it is emotionally challenging; I might say also, morally challenging. Hedges is a not a warm bath but an ice-bucket challenge. His writing is a challenge to liberal self-congratulation and any level of comfort with fascism, poverty, militarism, racism, and our other sins. He sets the bar very high and his thinking always challenges me to get to the root of things.

I feel that I have much in common with Hedges, especially when he describes his education. In this article for Truthdig he writes:

Starting at age 10 as a scholarship student at an elite New England boarding school, I was forced to make a study of the pathology of rich white families. It was not an experience I would recommend.

I attended a private grade school for 3 years, the Erie Day School. My brother and I were living in a trailer in North East, raised by my mother, who was a single mother working at Hamot Community Mental Health. She’d take us early in the morning to my grandmother’s house where we would wait for a van to drive us to school. The details are a little hazy, but I recall that the van ride took over an hour, and so my brother and I spent upwards of 3 hours getting to and from school every day, for the sake of a better educational opportunity. At the Erie Day School I was surrounded by the children of the wealthier strata of the Erie area, such as they were: the children of bank presidents and nursing home owners. Compared to the wealthy Hedges was surrounded with, these children’s families’ net worth was probably tiny, but I recognize the pathological entitlement and bullying mindset that he describes in this excerpt from the book:

…I watched how the elites and the children of the elites treated those “beneath” them. I saw my classmates—boys of eleven or twelve—order around adults who were their servants, cooks and chauffeurs. It was appalling. The rich lack empathy for those who are not also rich. Their selfishness makes friendship, even among themselves, almost impossible. Friendship for them is defined as “what’s in it for me.” They are conditioned from a young age to kneel before the cult of the self. I do not trust the rich. To them everyone is part of their elite club or, essentially, the help. It does not matter how liberal or progressive they claim to be. I would go back to Maine and it would break my heart. I knew what my classmates thought of people like my relatives. I also knew where I came from. I knew whose side I was on. And I have never forgotten. My family was a great gift. They kept me grounded.

After 3 years at the Erie Day School, I was pushed back into the public school system for grades 8 through 12. For a few years I felt like my developing mind was being smothered in mediocrity—which it was. Eventually I was able to get some good things out of my high school, when I could take classes in Chemistry, Physics, and some advanced classes in English. But the transition stunted my education, at least to some extent, especially in math.

I didn’t learn to what extent my education was “stunted” until years later, when I started college. I was fortunate to attend the College of Wooster, and to get enough financial support to attend, but my experience there was somewhat as Hedges describes his experience as a “scholarship kid:”

I was given a scholarship to attend a boarding school, or pre-prep school, in Deerfield, Massachusetts, called Eaglebrook when I was 10. I went to Loomis-Chaffee, an exclusive boarding school—the Rockefellers went there—after Eaglebrook. The year I graduated from Loomis-Chaffee, John D. Rockefeller III was our commencement speaker.

Boarding school made me acutely aware of class. There were about 180 boys at Eaglebrook, but only about ten percent were on scholarship. Eaglebrook was a school for the sons of the uber-rich. I was keenly aware of my “lower” status as a scholarship student. I saw how obscene wealth and privilege fostered a repugnant elitism, a lack of empathy for others and a sense of entitlement.

C. Wright Mills understood how elites replicate themselves. The children of the elites are, as Mills pointed out in The Power Elite, shaped not so much by the curriculum of exclusive schools but by intimate relationships with teachers, who often went to the same schools and prep schools, and by each other. This acculturation takes place through sports teams, school songs and rituals, shared experiences, brands and religious observances, usually Episcopalian. These experiences are often the same experiences of the boys’ fathers and grandfathers. It molds the rich into a vast extended fraternity that, because of these unique experiences, are able to communicate to each other in a subtle code. No one outside this caste knows how to speak in this code. This is what Gatsby finds out. He can never belong.

I don’t agree with all of Hedges’ priorities; for example, I’m not a vegan, although I experimented with it, and I don’t expect to become a vegan again. He seems to share the widespread fear of dietary fat. And I find his writing about Antifa to be a challenge to my beliefs about the importance of not tolerating intolerance. I haven’t quite figured out how to reconcile those priorities yet.

In my view, some of the best parts of this book are the parts where Hedges recounts his history as a war correspondent for the New York Times. His righteous anger towards the Times and its institutional support of America’s imperialist wars practically shines off the page. I highly recommend this book as an introduction to Hedges, and I also highly recommend watching a couple of his talks: first, his commencement address, with the full text available here, and second, his speech at Moravian College, with the full text available here.

These talks are both sobering reminders that if no one is trying to shout you down, you’re probably not actually reaching anyone, and probably not saying anything worth saying.

Story Time

I hoped to read the kids another chapter, or at least half a chapter, of The Fellowship of the Ring, but I could not convince the kids to get their after-dinner cleanup chores done and get ready for bed. So instead I read Grace chapter 4 of We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson.


I slept a little bit better last night, although not well. Our baby girl Elanor has been sleeping unevenly and has developed a habit of becoming very active right about the time Grace and I are finally ready to go to sleep, and throwing a tantrum when we turn out the lights.

This morning I read the first chapter of Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower. This is May’s book selection of the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti Socialist Reading Group. I probably won’t finish the book in time for the discussion meeting, or even manage to make it to any of the get-togethers, but since this book has been on my “to-read” pile for a long time anyway, it seems like a good month to at least start reading it.

I was able to get a little time last night to try configuring a Chromebook, one of the devices loaned to us by our online charter school. I tried creating a Google account for my daughter Veronica. My reading had suggested that it was possible to create a “custodial” account. But even though I put in her birthdate, the configuration wizard seemed to be creating an ordinary Google account. When I got to the point where I had to agree to their terms of service, I realized that I just couldn’t do it—I couldn’t agree to give Google permission to store and exploit every keystroke and click my children generate while using these Chromebooks.

We’re going to return them with an explanation.

DreamHost webmail is unreliable today, for the third time in a week.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Last night instead of spending 40 minutes trying to push the kids to get ready for bed so I could read them a story, I read Grace chapter 5 of We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. She was a much more appreciative audience. We’re now halfway through this short novel and I’m deeply impressed by Jackson’s writing, especially her terrific dialogue. In these chapters, Mary Katherine reveals more of her strange habits of mind: her magical thinking, her sense of unreality and depersonalization. She refers to cousin Charles as a “ghost,” and deliberately smashes a glass:

“Cousin Charles is still asleep,” she said, and the day fell apart around me. I saw Jonas in the doorway and Constance by the stove but they had no color. I could not breathe, I was tied around tight, everything was cold.

“He was a ghost,” I said.

Constance laughed, and it was a sound very far away. “Then a ghost is sleeping in Father’s bed,” she said. “And ate a very hearty dinner last night. While you were gone,” she said.

“I dreamed that he came. I fell asleep on the ground and dreamed that he came, but then I dreamed him away.” I was held tight; when Constance believed me I could breathe again.

“We talked for a long time last night.”

“Go and look,” I said, not breathing, “go and look; he isn’t there.” “Silly Merricat,” she said.

I could not run; I had to help Constance. I took my glass and smashed it on the floor. “Now he’ll go away, I said.

Later in chapter 5, she recalls several times that “today was to be a day of sparkles and light.”

There were sparkles at the sink where a drop of water was swelling to fall. Perhaps if I held my breath until the drop fell Charles would go away, but I knew that was not true; holding my breath was too easy.

And then later:

There were sparkles in the mirrors and inside our mother’s jewel box the diamonds and the pearls were shining in the darkness. Constance made shadows up and down the hall when she went to the window to look down on Uncle Julian and outside the new leaves moved quickly in the sunlight. Charles had only gotten in because the magic was broken; if I could re-seal the protection around Constance and shut Charles out he would have to leave the house. Every touch he made on the house must be erased.

“Charles is a ghost,” I said, and Constance sighed.

Merricat’s sense of depersonalization and disconnection gets stronger, until she seems to be deliberately confusing her sense about up and down:

I polished the doorknob to our father’s room with my dustcloth, and at least one of Charles’ touches was gone. When we had neatened the upstairs rooms we came downstairs together, carrying our dustcloths and the broom and dustpan and mop like a pair of witches walking home. In the drawing room we dusted the golden-legged chairs and the harp, and everything sparkled at us, even the blue dress in the portrait of our mother. I dusted the wedding cake trim with a cloth on the end of a broom, staggering, and looking up and pretending that the ceiling was the floor and I was sweeping, hovering busily in space looking down at my broom, weightless and flying until the room swung dizzily and I was again on the floor looking up.

If she can confuse up and down, it seems like she could easily talk herself into confusing right and wrong. And she makes ominous plans:

I thought of books, which are always strongly protective, but my father’s book had fallen from the tree and let Charles in; books, then, were perhaps powerless against Charles. I lay back against the tree trunk and thought of magic; if Charles had not gone away before three days I would smash the mirror in the hall.

Her small, deadpan lecture about the toxic effects of the amanita phalloides mushroom (aka the “death cap”), is chilling! I really love the way that Jackson gradually raises the stakes here, and allows the characters to reveal themselves through their thoughts and dialogue. We should have no trouble at all staying awake for the second half of this novel.


After work I’m running out to Costco with a short list: instant hash browns, chicken legs, a pot pie, and coconut milk. If they still have them, I might pick up a pair of cargo shorts. Yeah, I’m that guy: a middle-aged man who buys his oh-so-fashionable clothing at Costco. How did this happen?


I called Grace from Costco last night to see if she felt that the kids deserved a movie: in other words, had they done their chores, stayed on their task lists, done their schooling, and avoided fighting?

She told me that yes, they had done a good job and yes, they would love a movie. And more, because they had helped with getting loads of dishes run through the dishwasher and kitchen clean-up, dinner was almost done.

So at Costco I bought: one of their giant chicken pot pies; a package of organic boneless chicken thighs; a six-pack of boxes of coconut milk; a six pack of dehydrated shredded potatoes for hash browns; and a package of corned beef. I also bought a couple of bags of popcorn to watch during a movie.

I got the cargo shorts. I haven’t tried them on yet.

Then I went to Best Buy. I kind of despise Best Buy, and avoid it, but they had a few movies I wanted. So I actually bought four movies. The one for last night was Ant-Man. I’ll reveal the others as we watch them. Two of the movies I bought are Blu-Ray discs in Best Buy’s “steelbook” cases. I picked these up not so much because of the cases, but because they were marked down, and so either cheaper, or the same price, as the regular packages. I’m wondering if they will stand up to child abuse better than the standard cases. (In this case of course I don’t mean abuse of children, I mean abuse by children). I suppose I’ll find out!

Dinner was the boneless beef rib meat, roasted broccoli, and potatoes. Grace cooked the ribs in the instant pot and then roasted them in the oven with a homemade barbecue sauce. The result was really good!


This is one of the better-reviewed of the recent Marvel movies and so I had at least modest hopes for it. I was not disappointed. From reviews and the trailer, I expected this movie to lean more towards comedy, and it did.

Michael Douglas plays Hank Pym, and serves as a sort of back-stop to the film and gives it a little emotional weight when it is in danger of tilting too far towards the romantic comedy side of things. Evangeline Lilly is great in this movie as Pym’s daughter Hope. Paul Rudd plays Scott Lang (Ant-Man). The story line is clearly hooked into the larger Marvel movie world in a number of ways, but fortunately you don’t really have to pick up all the dropped names in order to understand the plot. I was scratching my head a bit when Pym refers to the Avengers, but in the film’s world, the Avengers are real. Which means, I suppose, that these movies don’t exist. (Hmmm…)

The three main characters work well together and the script is quite tight. There are many scenes where you start the scene believing you are watching one particular tired trope play out: for example, a prison fight. But then the perspective changes and the scene takes a left turn and you realize the script is toying with the tired old tropes to make them fresh.

There are a number of supporting characters but I want to mention Michael Peña in particular—he’s very funny in this movie, with the grin that seems to stay on his face no matter what happens.

The movie has a number of really great deadpan sight gags. I won’t give the best ones away, but they are among the funniest sight gags I’ve ever seen in a movie. I especially liked the way a number of them involve the soundtrack, either in the form of the film’s sound effects, or diegetic music (music that actually has an on-screen source). What’s particularly funny about them is the way they make fun of the entire concept of the huge, dramatic fight scene in these superhero films; viewed from a larger perspective, the dizzying action and whirlwind of sounds are revealed to be tempests in teapots (or perhaps lightning storms in “farms” of animation-rendering servers).

The movie script seems to make particular reference to the famous novel by Richard Matheson, The Shrinking Man, published in 1956. I thought that was a nice touch. In that story, at the end, Scott Carey is continuing to shrink, and appears to show no signs of stopping. We are left hopeful that as he continues to shrink, he will continue to exist, in some inconceivably alien world. In Ant-Man, the writers throw in the concept of a terrifying “quantum realm,” indicating that if the Pym Particle technology is pushed too far, the user will shrink into the quantum realm and continue shrinking forever in a world that is inconceivable to our minds, where “all concepts of time and space become irrelevant.” Of course, this is not actually what quantum mechanics tells us about the realm of the very small; in fact, it sort of suggests the opposite, that there is in fact a “minimum size.” And also it suggests that as Ant-Man shrank, the relative velocity and location of the particles that make up his body would become less and less determinable, which has got to play hell with one’s digestion, among other things.

As far as the shrinking technology goes: well, it’s best not to think about it too hard. If you really start to wonder how the suit can shrink Ant-Man down to the size of an ant, you quickly run into a lot of questions. How does he breathe? Where does his inertia go? (Side note: physicists would like you to think we’ve got the universe pretty well wrapped up, but we really don’t understand inertia all that well). In Ant-Man, Scott’s mass and inertia simply do whatever the screenplay needs them to do, with no real attempts made to keep these things consistent between scenes.

In general, I find that my mind wanders to this kind of nitpicking when the movie isn’t that engaging and my mind is wandering. Ant-Man does a pretty good job of keeping my attention on the screen, so I didn’t find myself with enough processing time leftover to write a snarky blog post in my head. I was generally able to maintain my suspension of disbelief. I remind myself that this movie is not, and not supposed to be, hard science fiction. Despite this, a couple of things did jump out at me: for one, the way that full-sized actions still seem to happen fast from Ant-Man’s perspective. That didn’t make a lot of sense. And also, the way that his voice could still be heard and understood by people existing at a normal scale, and the way that, similarly, he could hear sounds from the full-scale world around him. The speed at which ants could get across a city also seems ridiculously inflated—again, the ants do what the script requires of them. If you’d like to enjoy some nitpicking about the physics of Ant-Man, you can find a fun interview with physicist James Kakalios here.

There are a few minor downsides to the movie. It feels just a touch too long, even though it comes in just shy of the two-hour mark. And there are a few plot elements that just feel a bit too much like the screenwriters are ticking off boxes: now let’s explain this character’s back-story, and now let’s explain that other character’s back story. This feels a little awkward. The romantic element, likewise; it feels inevitable. But this attention to detail in the screenplay pays off, because everything that happens later in the movie seems to have a setup, even if it is a subtle one. And so it definitely feels like the screenplay received a lot of attention and careful revision.

I wondered, buying the movie, if it really would be suitable for the kids. Ant-Man is rated PG-13, like most of these Marvel films. But PG-13 covers a lot of ground; I had to censor some opening scenes in Doctor Strange because of a graphic beheading, and there was some shocking violence in Guardians of the Galaxy.

Anyway, I can recommend Ant-Man as a really fun superhero movie. I regret that I didn’t get to see it in the theater, because I think the sight gags would have been even more effective on a big screen. But it was still fun on a small screen. There’s a sequel coming out, Ant-Man and the Wasp. This movie has set up plenty of hints about what we might see in the sequel. The trailer for the new movie, in which (surprise) people and things get big as well as small, suggests that it is going to stretch both physics and my credulity well past their breaking points. So I’m already scaling down my expectations.


Last night was a little difficult. The kids were not very cooperative when it came time to do some basic chores, such as setting the table for dinner. So we ate dried-out chicken, late. They did finally get their poop together in time for a bedtime story, though. So I read them part of The Fellowship of the Ring: the rest of chapter 7, “In the House of Tom Bombadil,” and all of chapter 8, “Fog on the Barrow-downs.”

The action is gradually ramping up, although we still have to sit through several more hobbit meals. These are strangely under-described. We just learn that our characters ate yet another meal, but not what they ate. It’s like being invited to dinner and then having to wait while everyone else eats the meal behind a screen, where you can’t see it.

There are a few interesting things in these pages. We learn that Tom Bombadil is not affected by the Ring: he can put it on his finger, and doesn’t vanish. And when Frodo slips on the ring and vanishes, Bombadil can see him. Again, this reinforces the idea that Bombadil does not fit neatly into the framework of what we know about Middle-Earth: its history, and its taxonomy of powers.

Frodo has another dream, or maybe a vision, and this one is quite evocative:

That night they heard no noises. But either in his dreams or out of them, he could not tell which, Frodo heard a sweet singing running in his mind: a song that seemed to come like a pale light behind a grey rain-curtain, and growing stronger to turn the veil all to glass and silver, until at last it was rolled back, and a far green country opened before him under a swift sunrise.

This is a passage that is reiterated at the end of The Lord of the Rings, and quoted almost verbatim in the movie; it represents Frodo’s eventual passage into the blessed realm, the “Straight Way” way that was closed to most when Eru changed the world and drowned Númenor.

The hobbits have a sort of “starter” adventure when they are lost in the fog and captured by a Barrow-wight. As an adventure, it’s not that strong. It’s like the experience with Old Man Willow. The hobbits get into trouble; they yell for help; Bombadil shows up immediately. Either he was following just behind them, or he can fly. It’s a bit silly. These adventures both resolve too quickly with too much of a deus ex machina to be really dramatic, but they do set some things up. To me, the adventure on the Downs are interesting because of the way Tolkien brings the past right into the present, suggesting that the past is never gone, and also that events in Middle-Earth currently—the rise of Sauron—are stirring it up, literally raising the dead. In this case the dead are the ancient victims of the Witch King of Angmar, and it may be because the Nine are back in Sauron’s service that they are restive.

Tom dispels the wight, singing:

Get out, you old Wight! Vanish in the sunlight!
Shrivel like the cold mist, like the winds go wailing,
Out into the barren lands far beyond the mountains!
Come never here again! Leave your barrow empty!
Lost and forgotten be, darker than the darkness,
Where gates stand for ever shut, till the world is mended.

This is evocative of the banishing of Morgoth (Melkor):

Morgoth was utterly defeated and stood at bay, but was yet unvaliant. He fled into the deepest of his mines and sued for peace and pardon, but his feet were hewn from under him, and he was cast upon his face. He was bound with the chain Angainor, his Iron Crown was beaten into a collar for his neck, and he was thrust through the Door of Night into the Timeless Void.

There’s a bit where Merry seems to “channel” one of the early inhabitants of the Downs, reliving his death:

‘What in the name of wonder?’ began Merry, feeling the golden circlet that had slipped over one eye. Then he stopped, and a shadow came over his face, and he closed his eyes. ‘Of course, I remember!’ he said. ‘The men of Carn Dûm came on us at night, and we were worsted. Ah! the spear in my heart!’ He clutched at his breast. ‘No! No!’ he said, opening his eyes. ‘What am I saying? I have been dreaming. Where did you get to, Frodo?’

This is significant because Merry will eventually help Eowyn defeat the Witch King of Angmar, with

There are some more interesting visions out of the past, after their rescue, as Bombadil speaks to them:

‘Old knives are long enough as swords for hobbit-people,’he said. ’Sharp blades are good to have, if Shire-folk go walking, east, south, or far away into dark and danger.’ Then he told them that these blades were forged many long years ago by Men of Westernesse: they were foes of the Dark Lord, but they were overcome by the evil king of Carn Dûm in the Land of Angmar.

‘Few now remember them,’ Tom murmured, ‘yet still some go wandering, sons of forgotten kings walking in loneliness, guarding from evil things folk that are heedless.’

The hobbits did not understand his words, but as he spoke they had a vision as it were of a great expanse of years behind them, like a vast shadowy plain over which there strode shapes of Men, tall and grim with bright swords, and last came one with a star on his brow. Then the vision faded, and they were back in the sunlit world.

The man with the star on his brow might be a vision of Aragorn, later known as King Elessar, who wore the Star of Elendil; it is also suggestive of Isildur and Elendil and Aragorn’s other ancestors who also wore the first or second star. The Barrows were once the home of the Dúnedain. And so the “knife” that Merry takes as a sword is a blade of Westernesse, its blade preserved from the long years by spells. It was enchanted specifically to harm the Witch-king of Angmar, and so this scene sets up Merry’s confrontation with the Witch-king much later in the story.

Tom Bombadil specifically chooses these weapons for the hobbits, suggesting that his role in the books really is that of a deus ex machina. Just as Bilbo was “meant” to find the Ring, and Frodo was “meant” to run into Gildor, Tom was “meant” to help the hobbits in this way. Tom’s been around for a long time; he seems to not only know what happened on the Downs, but to remember the people buried there:

He chose for himself from the pile a brooch set with blue stones, many-shaded like flax-flowers or the wings of blue butterflies. He looked long at it, as if stirred by some memory, shaking his head, and saying at last:

‘Here is a pretty toy for Tom and for his lady! Fair was she who long ago wore this on her shoulder. Goldberry shall wear it now, and we will not forget her!’

And it’s suggested that he can see the eventual outcomes of his actions there, as well. And so one theory, as plausible as any, is that in addition to representing a sort of genius loci, Bombadil here also represents Tolkien himself, clearly meddling in the unfolding of the story. It’s sort of the opposite of Joyce’s approach to authorship, in which

“The artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.”

All this setup is quite clever. But there is silliness in this chapter as well. Why do the hobbits run about naked, like toddlers? Why won’t the hobbits find their clothes again, as Tom tells them? What happened to their clothes? Did the banished wight somehow take a bunch of sweaty hobbit clothes with him?

With the end of chapter 8, we’ve gotten through some of the slower parts of Fellowship. We’ve eaten lots of leisurely meals and taken lots of naps. But things are going to pick up considerably, until they really get moving in the rush to reach Rivendell. Events in the book will also start to match up again pretty closely with events portrayed in the movies, which my kids know well. That should help keep them awake!


This morning I dragged myself out of bed at about 8:10 after staying up too late reading to the kids. I got in the tub to soak for a few minutes and wake up. Joshua came in to ask if I wanted coffee or tea. I told him that I didn’t want either yet. Shortly after that, the smoke alarm went off. He was boiling water and also heating up the cast-iron griddle, because he was making hash browns.

He had everything too hot, and didn’t put any oil on the griddle, and it was smoking like crazy. He did get the fan on, but it takes a while to reduce the smokiness enough for the smoke detector to go off. No one asked (or particularly wanted) Joshua to be making breakfast unsupervised in the 8:00 hour, especially our housemates; one of them works second shift, and had only gotten to sleep a few hours earlier.

Nevertheless a number of us came to the table and sat down to try to eat. He had also scrambled some eggs, but they were nearly inedible. And apparently Benjamin made some toast.

I was planning to leave, but Joshua was really hoping I would eat his breakfast. I tried. The hash browns were quite burnt-tasting. And so I ate a little bit of the less-burnt parts, and a little bit of egg, and sipped some tea. I was going to butter a piece of toast and eat it to try to get the taste out of my mouth. But I turned over the toast and it was burnt completely black on the bottom. I put it back down, put my fork down, and said that I had to go to work.

Joshua’s face just crumpled with disappointment and he sat there, sobbing to himself. Instead of feeling like the hero of Thursday morning, he felt like a failure.

(Come to think of it, that’s pretty much how I feel every morning… welcome to adulthood, son?)

Now late for work, I had him come and sit on my knee, rubbed his back, and tried to explain that I really appreciated him taking the initiative to make breakfast, but that we didn’t really want him to do that. I told him he needed more practice cooking, with supervision, to get better at it. And also, that we have a planned menu, to try to make best use of our food budget—and not to waste food. The bread that Benjamin ruined was our housemate’s bread.

I’ll try to follow up with him tonight: to reinforce the parts about this that we love: his initiative, his enthusiasm, but remind him that no one likes surprises like this, especially not surprises where we have to jump in and take over, and find that food has been wasted.

It’s hard sometimes. In the morning, I really, mostly, want nothing more than a few minutes of peace, to read a chapter or two of whatever book I’m reading, bathe, and slip out quietly, in time to get to work on time, without having to engage in a lot of conversation, since I’m really not ready to interact with people when I first wake up, and it tends to go wrong. Little things can send me into an emotional tailspin. I don’t have any emotional resilience, first thing in the morning. And Josh is clearly my son.

I want Joshua to never lose his ambition to punch above his weight, to try things that are above his skill level. But we also don’t want the kids burning down the kitchen before the rest of us are even fully awake. And I personally I really, really don’t want them to waste food.

I’m probably also going to have to spend a chunk of this evening scrubbing the griddle, and scrubbing burnt hash-browns off the stove, and maybe scrubbing out the oven. It’s hard to be enthusiastic about that. I can ask the kids to do it, and they will try, but I will at a minimum have to go back over their work. It’s hard to get that burnt stuff off, but it is the difference between the smoke alarm going off every time we fire up the stove and oven, or not.

It’s hard to convey all that. I really long for more time to spend with my kids. Especially time to do things, not just argue with them about their chores, or about getting ready for bed. But most nights, that’s where we are. It will, mostly, probably continue to be that way, until they can help us get the basic daily routine down.

I wish I had some wisdom to offer, other than “I really want a vacation.” But that’s about it.

House News

We still don’t have an appraisal. Apparently when the plumber left last time, after repairing some leaks, he left the main water valve in the basement shut off. And so the appraiser couldn’t verify that the plumbing worked.

I offered to take half a work day and go up and turn it on, but Grace arranged to get the plumber back out to turn on the water for the appraiser. He didn’t want to leave it on with no one currently living in the house to catch problems. I think that’s probably wise, although it is delaying things.

Grace continues to try to work on the insurance claims and arrange repairs.


Last night I wound up staying at work quite late, trying to refresh my memories of how to program in LabVIEW. I took LabVIEW training, but it was about three years ago, and I have forgotten some of the details. It’s coming back to me. I’m remembering what I like about LabVIEW and what I don’t like.

Among the things I don’t like: there’s still no easy way to zoom in to a block diagram. Screens have gotten higher-resolution since the early versions of LabVIEW, and my eyes have gotten lower-resolution. So the objects on a LabVIEW block diagram are painfully hard for me to distinguish. But there’s no zoom. The basic mechanics of labeling VIs (“virtual instruments”) still relies on 1980s-era icons and icon editing. It feels kind of like writing your code using Bill Budge’s Pinball Construction Set, combined with doing cross-stitch.

It’s possible to make a mediocre but functional user interface very quickly and easily; in fact, it mostly happens automatically. That’s kind of cool. But when it comes to trying to refine your user interface—to precisely adjust the layout of your text boxes, for example—it’s horrible. So I’ve got a VI with 18 text boxes on it, and I’d like to be able to specify their position in pixels. There’s no way to do that. The GUI looks OK on a Windows 7 PC downstairs, but on my Windows 7 PC upstairs, the text box labels are in a different font and they aren’t the right size. I can’t figure out why there is a difference. When I start tweaking the text boxes, I can’t get them to look consistent, especially their borders, which seem to create random drop shadows. The environment just really fights me. A GUI designer program like Qt Creator gives me much more attractive results with finer-grained control and far less effort.

It just really seems like just about any aesthetic or usability concerns are far down National Instruments’ list of priorities, and have been for a long, long time.

The installers for the device support took hours to run. Literally hours. I’ve never seen an installer take so long, unless it was installing Windows itself from scratch.

On the plus side, it works. And it does provide pretty reliable instrument support. Personally I’d rather be writing this in a scripting-oriented programming language like Python, with some device support libraries (although I am not actually a huge fan of Python). I just haven’t been completely won over to the virtues of a proprietary, graphical, data-flow language. It has a lot of nice features, but also a lot of awkward features. And I generally find it far better and much more “future-proof” to avoid proprietary tools. Having been programming for over 40 years, I have some perspective on how languages come and go and why “niche” and proprietary languages are often, long-term, a bad choice.

But it is still some sort of industry standard, and it works pretty well for this application. So here we are. I have to become an expert in LabVIEW.

When I got home, the kids were watching a movie, and they seemed far more interested in watching a movie they’ve already seen several times than in listening to a story they haven’t heard. That was discouraging, but it meant that I read Grace another chapter of We Have Always Lived in the Castle. In this chapter, Merricat asks cousin Charles to leave, and he says no. She’s getting increasingly disturbed, and saying disturbing things about him. Constance seems to be obedient to Charles. Charles asks to see her father’s papers, shows a suspicious interest in the family’s money and jewelry, and does some of the shopping that Merricat normally does. Merricat is growing increasingly disturbed. Uncle Julian seems to be getting increasingly weak and ill. There’s a neat bit of foreshadowing when Charles’ pipe leaves a small burn on a chair.

This morning, my left rear tire was pretty flat. I drove it (slowly) up to the Discount Tire shop on Carpenter Road and checked in. And then, I waited. They told me it would be about an hour and a half, but in fact it was almost a three-hour wait. So I didn’t get out of there until after noon. Then I had to go to Meijer on Jackson Road and pick up my prescription. I got some lunch and some Mother’s Day cards while I was there. The upshot of the whole morning was that I didn’t get to work until about 1:00 p.m. Fortunately, I stayed late several nights this week so I can still get my full work week in without having to use any of my paid time off.

It’s quite cold today – it was in the low 40s this morning. Naturally I dressed for yesterday’s weather. So I’ve been near to shivering all morning. This evening we will go to a potluck dinner for Joshua’s youth choir, in Dexter. So I’ won’t be going to Costco tonight. We ought to have enough food for the weekend anyway.


I’m writing this on Sunday, just after noon. We had a pretty big day yesterday. We were invited to the wedding of a family friend in Davison, Michigan, a suburb of Flint. The wedding was held at a golf course and it was a beautiful occasion. The family is of the Bahá‘í faith. I’ve never been to a Bahá’í wedding before. The Flint area must have absorbed a lot of rain over the last two days, so at one point water started rising up through the building drains and flooding the floor of the building. But fortunately it stopped before the flood spread too far.

After the wedding, on the way home we stopped at the Barnes and Noble store in the Brighton area. I let the kids each pick out a book. Five of them did, but Benjamin was fixated on getting a Lego kit, and so brought home nothing.

Grace and I are nearly finished reading We Have Always Lived in the Catle, and I wanted to find a copy of The Haunting of Hill House to add to our library. But the only work by Shirley Jackson on hand at the Barnes and Noble was one copy of the same edition of We Have Always Lived in the Castle that we are already reading.

This Barnes and Noble, the one in Green Oak township, seems to have a huge fiction and literature section, and a generous science fiction and fantasy section, and even a large current affairs section. But yet I could find nothing at all to interest me, because the selection is a mile wide and an inch deep. In the science fiction and fantasy section, which is quite large, George R. R. Martin takes up an obscene amount of shelf space, but there was not a single book by Gene Wolfe. The current affairs section has lots of books by Fox News pundits, but there was not a single book by Chris Hedges. The fiction and literature section was bloated with romance and contemporary historical romance, but contained next to nothing of the classics. It’s ironic that this Barnes and Noble features a big mural over the cafe area, a fantasy cafe showing Woolf, Joyce, Hemmingway, and other famous authors, but the store holds almost no works by these authors. So I left the story empty-handed.

It’s not surprising that I find little value in browsing at chain bookstores. I still come across interesting surprises at Nicola’s in Ann Arbor, but mostly I browse online now. I order some books from Nicola’s, and some from Alibris. I should try browsing at some of the bookstores that still do business in downtown Ann Arbor—there are a few. But since I no longer live near downtown, I always find it an unpleasant challenge to try to get downtown during business hours.

I did consider bringing home a copy of Open Veins of Latin America, but I’m actually backed up with unread non-fiction at the moment, and I have a copy of Mistaken Identity on order.

We didn’t manage to schedule an interview for the podcast this week. About all I’ve got to talk about is my notes on recent reading and viewing. So maybe we’ll talk about Ant-Man.

Books, Music, Movies, and TV Mentioned This Week

  • We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
  • The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien
  • Unspeakable by Chris Hedges with David Talbot (finished)
  • The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler (just started)
  • Ant-Man (2015 film)

Ypsilanti, Michigan
The Week Ending Saturday, May 12th, 2018